News=Too Late to Do Anything

How does one effectively explain why we should care–and do something about–the starving and sick and the poor? Even though most of us in our minds feel that we would do the right thing if options were presented to us, we have become fatigued by the incomprehensible: famine, earthquake, tsunami, consuming disease, unemployment of nearly 10 per cent of our population, nearly 30 percent of African Americans

I thought about this last night as I was explaining–to a 12 year old–an upcoming medical outreach I’ll be doing in rural Uganda. As part of my AMREF work (African Medical & Research Foundation) I’m part of a team following our board member, Dr. Rodney Davis of Vanderbilt University, as he performs surgeries–including fistula surgery– with local African doctors at Kagando Mission Hospital in the southwestern part of the country.

We were having this conversation in a French bistro in Manhattan–Madison and her parents are visiting New York–and as we talked, the waitstaff replenished our water and bread with almost every sip and bite. The very fact of having any water and any bread is considered an extreme luxury by much of the developing world–and I daresay for an increasing population of the hungry right here at home.

And yet, we seem to be constantly surprised by this. We are shocked by the thousands of starving, near-dead (and dead, carried by the survivors) women, children and men streaming from Somalia into Kenya, escaping the worst famine in 50 years.

Part of our ignorance is the media’s fault. We too often define “news” as what happens when it’s too late to do anything about it. Eleven million people (when you include Ethiopia and those in Kenya) do not starve nearly to death overnight. They do not walk/run/crawl for hundreds of miles on a moment’s notice.

Our media did not do a good enough job of making sure we knew what was going on there…and we as citizens didn’t do enough with the scraps of information that got as far as us. Humanitarian organizations have been pleading for coverage and help for years. Perhaps for the mainstream media, it just wasn’t late enough yet.

President Obama, in meeting with the heads of Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire, Niger and Benin in Washington yesterday seem to confirm that inattention, by more than the media:

“…we discussed how we can partner together to avert the looming humanitarian crisis in eastern Africa. I think it hasn’t gotten as much attention here in the United States as it deserves.”

And when it comes to healthcare, there remains, as it has for decades, a crisis. The New York Times yesterday (7.30) had a front page story on maternal deaths in Arua, Uganda. The photograph of a sub-par delivery room, really, should come as no surprise. For me, the crux of the story was this:

“At regional hospitals like the one in Arua, more than half the positions for doctors are vacant, part of a broader shortage that includes midwives and other health workers.”

Earlier this year I participated in a conference in Bangkok, sponsored by WHO and The Global Health Workforce Alliance. We looked at the healthcare shortage in the developing world: we’re at least 4 million workers short. Now there’s a story that needs to be on the front pages. Before it’s too late.


(Note: AMREF is supplying medical care in the refugee camps in Kenya during this crisis, as well as training health care workers in 30 African countries.


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